Conner adds his voice to Hawks

Hawks coach Larry Drew knows there's a risk his players will get tired of hearing his voice over a long, repetitive and pressure-filled season.

So they will get to hear Lester Conner's voice instead.

A lot. They hear Conner during practice. They hear him during games. They hear him when are trying to score, when they are playing defense and when they are on the bench.

"He is just always talking about anything," Hawks guard Jeff Teague said.

The Hawks have little choice but to listen.

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For one, Conner's voice carries across the gym. He says he learned the power of projection from Rick Pitino, who hired him for his first NBA assistant job in 1998.

Also, when Drew hired Conner this summer to be his lead assistant, he said he wanted Conner to help the team develop an edge he believes they've lacked.

"He's always trying to get his point across, which is understandable from a coaching standpoint," said Hawks guard Joe Johnson, who credits Conner with helping him develop in 2001-02, when he was a Celtics rookie and Conner was an assistant. "Can't fault him for that."

Johnson said Conner has the credibility. After being named Pac-10 player of the year at Oregon State, Conner was drafted by the Warriors in 1982 and went on to play 687 games before retiring in 1994.

Players say it also helps that Conner makes his point with encouragement rather than put-downs.

"It's not like he will call you and try to embarrass you," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "It's always something he [says] to help the team out."

Conner said he tends to put his incitements into aspirational terms. He lets players know he only rides them because he wants them to be great and for the team to get better.

That approach leads to scenes like the one during a grueling training camp practice. As the players ran sprints, Conner interrupted his stream of corrections and called out: "Miami who? We are going to run them out of the gym!"

Later, Conner stalked the sideline next to forward Josh Powell, who signed with the Hawks after two seasons with Los Angeles. Conner bellowed: "Josh Powell, why don't you bring in your two [championship] rings so they can see what we are playing for?"

Conner said Pitino, Jim O'Brien and Terry Stotts influenced his coaching style, including the chattiness.

"It just kind of comes natural," Conner said. "I kind of want to be a voice so they don't hear [Drew] all the time. Coach Drew and I know how that can be."

Drew said he and Conner already have developed a good feel for one another. Drew is relatively stoic at practice and usually tweets his whistle to stop the action and make his point.

Conner, meanwhile, is "more of a rah-rah guy who feeds off of me," Drew said, adding that Conner's banter gives the Hawks "extra juice" during hard practices.

"The other thing I think it does is they know that he's not going to allow any slippage," Drew said. "If you are not there doing your assignment, he is going to voice his opinion about it. They respect that."

Teague and rookie Jordan Crawford have drawn a lot of Conner's attention. That's because not only are they are young players still learning the league but they are also guards, Conner's old position.

"I know he gets on a lot of their nerves, but it's good," Smith said. "You wake up in the morning and you think, ‘Oh, I have got to hear his mouth.' That's how they probably feel but it's good because it keeps their motor going."

Teague confirmed feeling wary at times about Conner's harping but also recognizes its value.

"At first, you might be like, ‘Man, he's always on me,'" Teague said. "At the end of the day, it's good for you."

Conner's message seems to be getting through. When Crawford talks about practicing at game speed, he uses the same words Conner repeatedly uses with his young guards.

"You need somebody like that," Crawford said. "It keeps you on the edge. You can't get too comfortable. If you have a good game, he stays on you, lets you know you've got to do it again."

Conner said he's altered his methods as players have changed. There are generational differences, of course, but he said it's also because players enter the league younger and make more money than when he played.

"They look at it as criticism when you point something out in front of the group," Conner said. "They look at it as ‘dissing' them or disrespecting them. I try to read how much I can push them in a certain way and then adjust and push them in a different way."

But always, Conner's way is to talk. His banter has become a fixture at practices, something players say they have come to expect and appreciate. When Conner talked about the Heat and Lakers at the recent practice, some players managed to smile despite their burning lungs.

“I think it's funny,” Smith said. “You just know it's coming. You know it can't be two or three possessions [in practice] and you know he's going to say something. Otherwise, he probably don't feel right.”

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